Biodynamic Farming

Biodynamic farming and gardening has gained a good deal of attention lately as a reputed means of providing chemical-free produce and humane animal repellents. A high public profile has not been matched by a broad awareness of the history and basis of the biodynamic approach. Despite this, there have been increasing demands for public funding of scientific studies to assess the worth of biodynamics.

The biodynamic approach to farming developed as an offshoot of the Anthroposophical movement of Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner. In the 1920s, Steiner applied his theories of a “spiritual science” to agriculture. He and his followers developed a series of preparations aimed at restoring the “vital life-force” to plants and enhancing their growth through utilisation of “planetary forces”. It is the use of these preparations and the practice of “peppering” that forms the main distinction between biodynamic followers and the more conventional organic farmers.

Biodynamic Preparation 500, for example, involves packing fresh manure into a cow’s horn and burying it over the winter months. The horn is said to reflect planetary forces into the manure, “raying back whatever is life-giving and Astral”, according to Steiner. Burying it ensures that “all the radiations that tend to etherialise and astralise are poured into the inner hollow of the horn”. This causes the manure to be “quickened” with “all that is Ethereal and life-giving”. The manure is then diluted and used as a spray. Preparation 501 uses diluted silica (often powdered quartz) to bestow sense organs upon the plant, “allowing the totality of outer planetary forces to work”.

One Massey University study looked at the differences between soils on seven biodynamically run farms and nine conventionally farmed properties chosen for close proximity so as to match soil types. A range of factors, including bacterial numbers, trace element quantities, organic content and the physical structure of the soil were examined. The biodynamic farms were found to have superior soil quality. However, this was predictable as it is a result of the common organic practices that biodynamic farms undertake, such as green crop manures, composting, soil rotation and the like, rather than being attributable to the “etherialised Cosmic- Astral influences” which biodynamic proponents claim are at work.

There has been little in the way of rigorous scientific testing of biodynamic claims. While biodynamic texts refer to tests done in the 1920 – 40s, few — if any — were conducted in a scientific manner. By far the bulk of evidence supporting biodynamic claims is anecdotal, where keen enthusiasts talk about how well they are doing. This is not to suggest that such proponents are lying, but if we are going to fund and put into place agricultural or pest control practices, it is important to ensure that they are clearly proven to work.

It is all too easy to find people who can make a claim, often sincerely, but that doesn’t make them right. After all, millions of people once believed that the Earth was flat! That’s why it is so important to do the tests in as independent and objective a fashion as possible and, ideally, independently repeating “successes” so that we don’t end up fooled by our own errors and illusions. This is the foundation of science, and it serves as a form of consumer protection for the many ideas that are mooted.

In 1991, The Forest Research Institute was the first organisation in the world to make a solid scientific study of one core biodynamic practice, that of “peppering”. In this, the bodies of unwanted organisms are burnt at a certain time in the lunar cycle. The ashy remains are then diluted down to minute levels and sprayed around a property. This is said to reduce or eliminate the presence of the undesirable organism. Peppering is used by biodynamic followers for everything from clearing land of thistles to repelling possums. When plans were being made for ridding Rangitoto Island of possums, biodynamic adherents approached the Department of Conservation with the suggestion that 1080 drops be replaced by peppering, citing it as a natural, chemical-free approach which would successfully repel possums and, according to some believers, even sterilise them!

Treated and untreated foods were laid out in bait stations and the behaviour of the possums carefully examined. Five “active” and four placebo treatments were tested. The former were provided by a homeopathic company, the Biodynamic Farming & Gardening Association and a biodynamic farmer. FRI also produced their own solution based on instructions from the association. Treatments were coded to reduce experimental bias, and multiple series of tests were run.

Biodynamic proponents predicted that the “possums would not go near the treated areas and they would probably be desperate to get out of the cages”. In fact, there was no discernible reaction. The results were rejected by the Bio Dynamic Farming and Gardening Association of New Zealand.

The scientists involved in the study noted that if there had been any evidence that something was going on, they would have gone further and there would have been keen interest in doing so. As with many pseudo-sciences, peppering has developed its own impressive jargon which can sound reasonable to the non-scientifically literate. In discussing the claim that highly diluted ash can sterilise the pests involved, one biodynamic proposal stated:

“The theory holds that the specific preparation methods produce the negative ’energy’ of the pest’s reproductive force, operating on a vibrational level, not a material one.”

This is a meaningless statement on a variety of levels and it is important to challenge this sort of claim. After all, possums represent a very real threat to New Zealand’’s ecosystem and it is vital that an effective way of dealing with them is identified.

Possum peppering has been clearly demonstrated not to work when tested properly. Given the huge dilutions involved in producing the preparation, about the only way you could deter possums with it is to have a vast amount of the peppering solution (i.e. water) in a firehose and spray individual possums until they fall off a cliff into the sea!

Proposals to use peppering have regularly come up before regional councils and other bodies looking for a way to deal with pests, including most recently the painted apple moth in Auckland. It seems to offer a cheap, quick, easy fix, but there is no such thing when it comes to the real world. A balanced ecological system approach has its place in agriculture. The problems are with the aspects which are said to be beyond the realms of physics and chemistry.

Creation Science

Darwin’s theory of evolution has always provoked much controversy and opposition. Non- acceptance of evolution still has a considerable number of supporters in the USA. . A 2014 Gallup poll revealed that 42% of Americans believe that God created humans in their present form, 31% believe that humans evolved but with God’s guidance, while only 19% believe that humans evolved, with God having no part in the process. This rejection of evolution in favour of a recent creation of man indicates a low level of scientific literacy where evolution is concerned.

Active opposition to evolution comes from various fundamentalist religious groups, who see it as a threat to long-held beliefs concerning ultimate origins and our place in the universe. There should be no objection to people clinging to cherished beliefs, but when they unjustifiably claim scientific credence for them, and also insist that they be taught in the science classroom, there is just cause for concern by skeptics and others.

Possibly the most militant of the anti- evolutionists are the “creation scientists”, a group of “young-earth” Christians based in the United States. They wish to see their literal interpretation of the Bible taught in schools as a viable alternative to evolution. Of the strategies devised to achieve this, the one which has found most success is where the religious nature of their belief system is down-played and the language of science used to give an impression of scientific credibility.

The religious nature of “creation science” is especially exemplified in the statements of faith required for membership to the various organisations established in its name – statements, for example, relating to a creator, a universal flood, minimal changes to created “kinds”, and a young earth. “Creation” is taken to mean the bringing into being of the basic “kinds” of organisms as described in Genesis, a process which creationists themselves acknowledge is beyond the scope of scientific inquiry.

If we are to believe the anti-evolutionists, evolution is “a theory in crisis”, teetering on the brink of oblivion. In reality, evolution in scientific circles has attained the status of fact. This declaration invariably elicits cries of “foul” and “dogmatism” from evolution’s opponents. They ask, how can a theory be fact? The answer is that it is the same way we distinguish between the fact of continental drift and its proposed mechanism, the theory of plate tectonics.

Darwin’s theory comprises two major propositions:

  1. evolution (or descent with modification) has occurred
  2. the key mechanism of evolution, the “how” of the process, is natural selection

Proposition (1) is a fact, supported by overwhelming evidence from many research fields; proposition (2) is theory.

These two aspects of evolution are often conflated by anti-evolutionists. They cannot resist highlighting conflicting views concerning the mechanism of the process so as to make it appear that evolutionists are questioning the validity of evolution itself. One common argument against evolution is that it is “only a theory”, implying that creationism has equal validity as a different theory. This is a misleading use of the word as, in science, “theory” means much more than conjecture or even hypothesis. “Theory” is used by scientists as a shorthand term for describing an explanatory structure which is broadly based across a range of specialist areas, reasonably secure, and supported by consistent observations and experimentation. The knowledge held within this theory can be organised in a highly formal system using basic underlying priniciples as an explanatory tool from which to explore further.

In declaring evolution a fact, the accusation of dogmatism is unjustified since scientists make no claim to absolute truth (unlike the anti- evolutionists). A fact in science means, as Stephen J. Gould notes, is something “confirmed to such a degree that it would be perverse to withhold provisional assent”. It is against this bastion of scientific certitude that the anti-evolutionists have mounted their Quixotic attacks, employing invalid arguments and questionable tactics.

The “strawman technique” involves setting up evolution in such a way that the caricature erected is easily demolished. Evolution is portrayed as a process of pure chance or accident. Therefore, any possibility of producing complexity is nil. But evolutionists do not conceive the process in just this way. Chance factors are involved (such as mutation and recombination), but natural selection itself, working on new gene combinations, helps in explaining not only speciation but also the evolution of complexity. The most insidious of creationist tactics is the selective quotation. The creationist literature abounds with extracts lifted from the evolutionary literature in such a way that they then convey meanings never intended by their authors.

Occasionally, creationists will admit that creation “science” depends on faith. But evolution, too, is a religion, they argue. This is nonsense. Prominent skeptic, Michael Shermer, defines science as

“a set of methods designed to describe and interpret observed or inferred phenomena, past and present, and aimed at building a testable body of knowledge open to rejection or confirmation”.

On the other hand, creationists start with a set of absolute beliefs, and facts or concepts which contradict these must either be declared false, or made to fit a preconceived mould. This is the antithesis of scientific inquiry. Acceptance in science is not a matter of faith or belief, it is a matter of evidence. Evolutionary science meets this criterion.

One of the problems in debating with creationists is in the broad range of arguments that they often employ. Thus in arguing with a geologist, they will concentrate on biological factors, and vice versa.

Does creation “science” deserve a place in the school science classroom? The answer to this question, given its nature and the tactics employed by its proponents, has to be a resounding “NO!”

Understandably, creation “science” poses a much greater threat to the integrity of science education in the USA than it does in New Zealand. But recent reports indicate that creationism has already become established in a number of our schools, so principals, teachers and boards of trustees cannot afford to be complacent over this issue. In an educational climate in which the distinction between science and non-science is becoming more and more blurred, constant vigilance is essential.